Deep Change: Summer Homework for the Adults in Schools

One of my favorite things to think and learn about throughout my graduate studies was the topic of organizational change. It is a topic that is rich with theories, research, action plans, buzz words and reams and reams of paper written about what it is, how it manifests itself, and how to be a leader within it. I love thinking about it, and even more, I love talking to people in schools about how to attain it, and what it could look like.

In this day and age in schools, “change” is everywhere. So much focus is on “change” and why we should do it, that there are many places I have found that change has happened just to say they did. Change for change’s sake is everywhere, and as a consultant, it is easy picking as far as where to start conversations. Should change even be taking place? What should it look like? How do we plan for it? Who should be involved? To what end? These questions and many, many more are ones that keep my phone ringing.

One of my favorite things about talking about change in schools is when foundational pieces can be applied and adults are able to immediately see how they can work together in a different way. For example, I love using the Seven Norms of Collaboration and other methods from the “The Adaptive School: A Sourcebook for Developing Collaborative Groups""” book by Garmston and Wellman. These tools help adults discover the needs that exist within their contexts, learn how to engage in meaningful conversations with one another, and move through the process of change together, energizing one another the whole time.

Many times, however, I am reminded that change is a difficult thing for people. In my experiences with schools, time and time again I am reminded that this is a process that needs to be tended. There are people and emotions involved with any change. Personal belief systems and practices that have been going on for years create a culture that flies in the face of deep change. Personally, I have been reminded of this in a very real way as of late. External factors that are requiring a change in my life are causing me to feel uneasy, unsure, and wonder what next steps there should be. This is unsettling for sure, but also a place for new learning and new focus.

The same things that I talk to adults in schools about all of the time, about how to be leaders within change, how to talk the talk and walk the walk – leadership through behaviors, not just words – is now front and center in my own life. It leaves me to think about how it is that I ask for people in schools to do just this, and reminds me how hard this really can be.

I was reminded of a book that I read during my graduate studies, “Deep Change: Discovering the Leader Within ""” by Robert E. Quinn. In it, he speaks to the personal choices people make within any real change. A choice he says is between deep change and slow death. Deep change is like “walking naked into the land of uncertainty”, and slow death is where we just do what has always been done, slowly losing our excitement or engagement, and ultimately being rendered with a feeling of helplessness within an organization or our lives generally. It makes me think of the dynamics that happen within schools, where teachers are called upon to change, and have a choice of either embracing the change – or are able to close their classroom doors and keep doing what they have always done before.

When I ask a teacher to try something new, something they are uncomfortable with, something that they have no experience neither doing nor training for – I am asking them to make this same choice. In Quinn’s book, he details ways to think about the fear of change. Very often, people begin by simply telling a person what they need to change. This usually isn’t very productive, so then the next step is to try to coerce a person to change. This is also usually not very productive, so then a checklist or “to-do” list is made so that a change can be tracked and noted. How many times do we see this pattern play out in schools? What degree of success is there?

Instead of this cycle, Quinn proposes that for a deep change, or any real change to occur, is through personal change. He says that personal change is a reflection of our inner growth and empowerment. Communicating at a level beyond telling, he describes, is what happens when we call upon people to have the courage to change themselves, and model the behavior they are asking of others. He believes that continuous personal change is the basis of successful living and that when we are continually growing we have an internal sense of meaning and impact.

This is where I can honestly say that I have personal experience with this topic. Many times in recent history – I have stopped to think about the bridge that I wish was between me and the other side of something new. The reality of it is that there are times in life and in our work that require us to build the bridge while we are walking on it. We don’t have clear answers, we have no experiences with it, but by focusing on our internal sense of meaning and impact, we can build the bridge plank by plank each in our own way.

There is a story in Quinn’s book that he tells of a child on a swing at the zoo. His parents each try to get him off of the swing, but as it is one of his favorite things to do, they are unsuccessful. The entire zoo awaits around the corner, but this young child is happily swinging and resisting his parent’s pleas to get off the swing and move on to the fun that is around the corner. The father tells the child all about the rest of the zoo that awaits, but the child still remains on the swing. The mother tries to coerce the child off the swing, still to no avail. It is not until the parents forcefully remove the child, kicking and screaming off of the swing and shows him around the corner, that he runs happily to the next thing and enjoys the next encounter.

In schools, we must think about ourselves as people that are happily on a swing. In order to grow as professionals and as people, we must realize the overpowering urge we have to grip the swing tighter, and realize that courageously engaging in something new creates new paradigms. Tackling uncertainty successfully causes us to become empowered, and more able inspire others.

I see leadership within schools as individuals being able to tackle uncertainty, or at least willing to give it a try. My homework for the adults in schools over the summer is to think of ways to let go of the swing. You can choose if this is going to look like you jumping off from the highest point while flying through the air, or if it will be after the swing has come to a stop and you simply walk off…but I implore you to think about how it is that you will start seeing the rest of the zoo. Change happens all of the time in schools…it is time for you to be one of the leaders that gets off the swing.

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